|The week of June 26 was unusually busy with rising powers politics in Washington. Donald Trump met India’s Narendra Modi and South Korea’s new leader Moon Jae-in, both for the first time. Though personal chemistry loomed particularly large aside from substantive issues, Trump left little doubt that trade was his common priority across India and Korea as the US has a trade deficit with both. How are relations between America and its “quasi-ally” India, and America and its treaty ally South Korea, being viewed by rising powers after the meetings? Are relations under Trump headed for a bumpier ride or not?
The Trump-Modi discussions on June 26 were followed by a dinner at the White House, the first for a foreign leader in the Trump administration. Ahead of meeting Prime Minster Modi, the President tweeted: “Look forward to welcoming India’s PM Modi to @WhiteHouse on Monday. Important strategic issues to discuss with a true friend” Trump’s “true friend” characterization and Modi’s well known “bear hugs” set the tone for visibly cordial personal relations.
The Indian Prime Minister seemed to play it safe by not bringing up difficult topics like H1B visas for Indians, whereas President Trump was less restrained in his remarks, pointing to the need to create “a trading relationship that is fair and reciprocal,” and to reduce our trade deficit with your country.” Attention to terrorism, defense sales to India, and Asian regional strategic convergence however ensured an ostensibly smooth summit.
Indian analysts were mostly congratulatory but with a dose of skepticism regarding future progress.
- Chintamani Mahapatra, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, had high praise for the summit in the pro-BJP newspaper, The Pioneer, and declared that “The joint statement has silenced the critics, converted the doubters, and has cautioned two of India’s neighbors-China and Pakistan-to refrain from destabilizing activities and to be more law-abiding.”
- An editorial in the left leaning Hindu also concluded that “PM Modi and President Trump exceed the muted expectations for their first meeting…All things considered, a good beginning appears to have been made…”
- Jayanth Jacob, columnist in the liberal Hindustan Times too found much encouragement in the growing convergence on the Indo-Pacific, defense and counter-terrorism. But he cautions that it remains to be seen “how far the Trump administration will go in nudging Pakistan, still a frontline state of the US, in walking the talk on terrorism.”
- Opposition Congress Party spokesperson Manish Tewari was dismissive of the summit: “The joint statement between India and the US is disappointing to say the least. It was old hat. There was no big idea in the relationship.” He also noted that “President Trump’s interpretation of Islamist terror is very different from the interpretation that we have of cross border terrorism which is being sponsored by Pakistan.”
- The Pioneer also carried an article by Gopalan Balachandran, Distinguished Fellow at the government supported Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, who expressed strong reservations. He attributed much of the success of the summit to the Indian side’s “precautions to exclude subjects that may be of interest to India such as climate change, H1B visas issues, but on which Trump has taken an active dislike.” He warned against giving “uncritical welcome to the joint statement.”
Chinese commentary was initially rather muted on the meeting between Trump and Modi, but with Sino-Indian border tensions rising in recent days, the tone in the media has become more strident.
- Ni Feng, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted in an article in the nationalist Global Times giving mixed reviews of the summit. According to Ni, “Even though US-Indian relations have been improving in the past decade, Trump’s attitude towards India had been unclear before this meeting, and he has given it a positive spin.” According to him, “Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, who had many ideas on using India to restrain China, Trump considers India a big power that requires his attention, but not as much as China and Russia.”
- The same article cited Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and the Vice-Director and Secretary-General of China’s Central and South Asia Security Council who argued that “Though India and the US are trade partners, cooperation between them is never balanced…Sino-US trade is far superior, so Trump, being a practical businessman, considers China issues more important.” Hu concluded that. “All in all, China, as India’s neighbor, is always happy to see better US-India relations, because they could also benefit China.”
- Liu Zongyi, senior fellow of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies downplayed India’s importance to Trump: “Trump’s face-to-face meeting with Modi came after his meetings with over 20 heads of state.” According to Liu, “Trump differs remarkably from his predecessors, in that he is adept at making deals and values real benefits and strength. Despite Trump’s respect for Modi, an India that lags far behind the US and China in national strength is unlikely to win Trump’s affection.”
- An op-ed in Global Times went further and asserted that “India cannot afford a showdown with China on border issues. It lags far behind China in terms of national strength and the so-called strategic support for it from the US is superficial.” It added that “Maintaining friendly ties with New Delhi is Beijing’s basic policy. But this must be based on mutual respect.”
With President Moon Jae-in, Trump began with a state dinner at the White House on June 29 ahead of official meetings the next day. Right after dinner, Trump tweeted: “Just finished a very good meeting with the President of South Korea. Many subjects discussed including North Korea and new trade deal!”
Trade and North Korea dominated the summit agenda. The two leaders discussed the increasing threat from North Korea and, despite differences, agreed to cooperate on the matter. President Trump highlighted his concerns regarding the increasing US trade deficit since implementation of the KORUS FTA. Also addressed was the US deployment of THAAD launchers, a project about which President Moon has reservations.
- Showing an inordinate attention to the optics of the meeting between Presidents Trump and Moon, the liberal Korea Times reported that “When the two leaders first met before dinner, they shook hands, although Trump did not show his usual powerful grip. They instead tapped each other’s shoulder and arm lightly in a friendly manner.” However, the article pointed out that it was the first time that Trump has hosted a state dinner for a foreign leader.
- The conservative leaning Korea Joongang Daily applauded a successful summit between President Donald Trump and President Moon Jae-in and concluded that “The dove and hawk got along better than many expected…Moon passed his first test on the international stage.” The op-ed noted that the two nations agreed to cooperate in fighting the growing threat from North Korea’s nuclear program. It suggested that while no concrete solutions to complex issues were found, the leaders seemed to have built personal trust and a promising bond.
- Columnist Tong Kim in Korea Times praised President Moon Jae-in’s first visit to Washington, an unexpected result given political differences regarding North Korea, THAAD deployment, and trade. But he noted that while agreeing to cooperate on North Korea, “Moon still puts more weight more on talks and Trump more on sanctions,” and pointed out that there were no concrete details on how the two allies will proceed to curb Pyongyang’s weapons programs. Besides, President Trump vowed to leave all options on the table, including a military response. Kim anticipates challenges ahead with the two countries having to fashion a response to North Korea at the same time as renegotiating the issues of trade and defense burden sharing.
- Days after the summit, the conservative Dong-A Ilbo reported that “Trump officially notified his intent to begin renegotiation on the free trade agreement between South Korea and the U.S… The South Korean government is reviewing a trade balance level of each item against trade and investment destined to the US.”
- Ahead of the summit, the state-directed China Daily highlighted that President Donald Trump and President Moon Jae-in have an interest in building a positive relationship. While this relationship can be strengthened by their agreement on North Korea, the article argued that it could just as well be strained by their tensions over trade. On THAAD, the article expected hurdles, and described Moon as expressing “shock late last month upon learning that four more launchers for the controversial system had been brought into the country [and] ordered a probe after his Defense Ministry failed to inform him of the move.”
- The nationalist Global Times reiterated the potential for both cooperation and conflict, but concluded that South Korea-US ties were strengthened through the summit. Moreover, South Korea was able to get American understanding regarding their security concerns, and is apparently expected to invest more heavily in Republican governed states.
- The conservative Japan News focused mainly on the potential for cooperation regarding North Korea. The article praised Presidents Trump and Moon for agreeing to apply maximum pressure on North Korea via sanctions, but also to keep a door open for dialogue with North Korea if they choose the “right path.” However, it worried that “Moon has shown eagerness for dialogue and economic cooperation to resume between the two Koreas, even amid North Korea’s repeated provocative actions. Japan and the United States have taken the position that “pressure, not dialogue, is needed now over North Korea. Moon must keep in step.” It reiterated that Japan agrees with the US on the necessity of pressure, rather than dialogue at this stage and that Moon’s policies regarding THAAD deployment, which has caused delays, were also a concern for Japan.
- The left oriented Asahi Shimbun focused on the mixed nature of South Korea-US relations, pointing out that Trump “emphasized the importance of their alliance but took aim on trade and sharing the cost of defense.” The report saw a sharp rebuke and noted: “To rub it in, Trump called on his top economic officials to address their grievances to Moon in front of journalists.” According to the article, even on North Korea, “it remains unclear how Trump will find a way forward…” despite the “touch rhetoric.”